Hawaii Bowl Preview
December 21, 2017
By Joe Nelson
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While the Week 16 NFL slate fills up the Christmas Eve schedule there is not a Sunday night game as attention will turn back to the college game with bowl action from Hawai’i in the evening time slot. Fresno State and Houston face off in a closely-lined contest with both teams having success following coaching changes.
Here is a look at Sunday’s Hawai’i Bowl.
Matchup: Houston Cougars vs. Fresno State Bulldogs
Venue: Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawai’i
Time/TV: Sunday, December 24, 8:30 p.m. ET ESPN
Line: Houston -2½, Over/Under 49
Last Meeting: None
Among the various bowl destinations the Hawai’i Bowl stands out as a favorable destination for most schools. For Fresno State it will be a second trip to Honolulu, as they won a Mountain West road game at Hawai’i in November. Fresno State also played in this bowl game three seasons ago, losing 30-6 to Rice at the end of the 2014 season. Houston lost to the host in the Hawai’i Bowl in triple overtime in 2003. This bowl matchup will be the first ever meeting between these programs.
Both teams had coaching changes after last season in much different scenarios. Fresno State finished 1-11 last season leading to the dismissal of Tim DeRuyter with a few games remaining. The Bulldogs reached out to the man that was their quarterback for two seasons in the early 1980s, Jeff Tedford. After a solid 11 year run at California Tedford bounced around the previous three seasons coaching the NFL, CFL, and back as an assistant in college football last season at Washington. Few could have envisioned such a successful homecoming for Tedford back in Fresno where he also was an assistant coach in the mid-1990s.
For Houston, success the past two seasons led to Tom Herman being plucked away by Texas necessitating a coaching change. The Cougars turned to Major Applewhite, a former Texas quarterback that was an assistant at Alabama and Texas before joining Herman’s staff as the offensive coordinator in 2015. That made for an easier transition for the program and while this season won’t match the success the Cougars had the past two years, returning to a bowl game and featuring a winning season was a solid debut for the 39-year-old first time head coach.
Tedford has long been known as a developer of quarterbacks, grooming NFL draft picks Trent Dilfter, David Carr, Akili Smith, A.J. Feeley, and Joey Harrington while an assistant at Fresno State and Oregon and then coaching Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers at California. He did a magnificent job coaching Oregon State transfer Marcus McMaryion into a very successful season this year with the junior completing 61 percent of his passes with only four interceptions.
The Bulldogs didn’t post big offensive numbers with just over 28 points per game but they avoided turnovers, finishing +8 in turnover margin on the season and only losing the turnover battle three times this season and never worse than -1. Freshman Jordan Mims and sophomore Josh Hokit split the carries in the backfield with similar production while junior KeeSean Johnson was the fourth leading receiver in the Mountain West.
The turnaround from 1-11 to 9-4 with a division title was mainly led by the defense. Tedford stepped into a good situation with a lot of returning contributors and despite the awful record, Fresno State lost six games by 14 or fewer points in the 2016 season. After allowing nearly 31 points per game last season the Bulldogs are 9th nationally in scoring defense this season surrendering just over 17 points per game. Only five times all season did Fresno State lose the yardage battle and only Alabama and Washington out-gained the Bulldogs by more than 55 yards. No team scored more than 26 on Fresno State in the final 10 games of the season including the 17-14 loss to Boise State in the Mountain West Championship.
Houston had some of the inconsistent results one might expect from a team led by a first-time head coach. The program also had to deal with Hurricane Harvey hitting the area just as the season was set to start, cancelling the opening game at Texas-San Antonio. Houston won at Arizona in its first game and nearly had another major conference win with a 27-24 defeat at Texas Tech. After nice wins over Temple and SMU to start the AAC season the Cougars allowed 87 points in back-to-back losses against Tulsa and Memphis. The team rebounded with an upset win at South Florida before closing the season with a defeat at Tulane and a win hosting Navy.
The quarterback situation revolved over the season. Highly regarded Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen started the season for Houston but struggled in the first month and was benched in favor of senior Kyle Postma who had played in a few games over the previous two seasons. The best results for the Houston offense came when the team turned to sophomore D’Eriq King who started the final four games with nearly 70 percent completions and only one interception.
Junior Duke Catalon led the team in rushing for a second straight season but his carries went down significantly with the mobile King taking over at quarterback. Senior Steven Dunbar was the top target with 66 catches on 13.2 yards per reception. The offense has recently lost offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson to Florida where he will re-unite with Dan Mullen.
Six times Houston’s defense allowed 22 or fewer points but overall the numbers declined dramatically compared with last season. Houston allowed nearly 100 more yards per game and more than half a yard more per game compared with the 2016 numbers. Sophomore Ed Oliver is a top NFL draft prospect after being an All American as a freshman. His 2017 numbers were down from last season drawing a lot of attention. The Cougars still possess a solid run defense allowing just 3.8 yards per rush but that average is almost a yard worse than last season.
Applewhite did coach Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl last season, a 34-10 defeat against San Diego State from the Mountain West. Tedford was 5-3 in his bowl games while California, losing his last two in 2009 and 2011 however. The 2011 Holiday Bowl loss came against Texas, where Applewhite was an offensive assistant at the time.
Historical Trends: Fresno State has lost six bowl games in a row S/U and ATS with the last victory for the program coming in 2007. Houston is 5-11 S/U and 7-9 ATS in bowl games going back to 1980, though 4-3 S/U & ATS in the past seven appearances going back to 2008. Houston has a remarkable recent record in the underdog role but is 8-13 ATS as a favorite the past two seasons and actually 5-12 ATS in the last 17 instances since October of last season when the team rose to national prominence. Fresno State is on a 12-1 ATS run as an underdog since last October, covering in all six instances this season.
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